With talk of flying cars and setting up the first ‘colony’ on Mars, imaginative configurations of what the future city may look like have colored pop culture for decades past. In recent years, the conversation around autonomous vehicles as a segue into inching closer to the future city that urbanists have dreamed of has grown. In a proposal grounded in a more realistic future, a global design firm has produced a sketch of what our cities could look like without the most omnipresent trait of every city around the world: cars.

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, today known simply as HOK, is an innovative and global design, architectural, and planning firm. Last month, the design firm rolled out a concept sketch of a city with streets bustling with towering trees, wide pedestrian-filled avenues, and autonomous vehicles roaming around. The concept sketch sprung from discussions at the Urban Land Institute Event in Seattle and brought forth two questions that informed the sketch. The first is what is to become of the future of cities in the face of technology-enabling autonomous vehicles, while the second question is the amount of public space reclaimable sans cars crowding city streets.

The sketch envisions a city with wider sidewalks, bioswales – which utilize landscaping to filter water and pollution – and scores of grass and trees. This rendering is allowed only because of the prospect of autonomous vehicles becoming the primary motorized form of transport, altering the status quo by dislodging cars from their current place in our cities. The technology behind autonomous cars allows city planners to envision cities without placing the automobile as the pivot of the city while also entertaining possible improvements to urban environments. 

cities sans vehicles

HOK’s layout of what cities could be like with extra pedestrian space

The move away from car-centered cities is nothing new, with an entire New York Times series dedicated to imagining a future without cars, leaving urbanists and city planners with a kind of urban tabula rasa to reimagine cities. “Today, you can’t design streets without thinking about vehicles. But those vehicles are about to change,” says HOK’s director of planning, Brian Jence. “We haven’t spent enough time showing people what cities could look like if they’re not designed around the car.”

HOK’s conceptual sketch is not the first of its kind. The Korean government unveiled a mock city to test autonomous vehicles in South Korea earlier this year. The technology that allows for cars to roam the streets without human interaction does not intend to rid cities of human drivers. It also enables vehicles to communicate with one another, which has the potential to revolutionize urban transport, making it significantly more efficient than it is today.

In collaboration with Vox, Joseph Stromberg published a video report on the history of the U.S.’s cities in which he explained why highways cut straight through major American cities. He explains that during the waves of mass urbanization in the post-war era in the United States, cities were paving highways at an exponential rate, centralizing urban transport around the automobile. In the 21st century, traversing America’s cities on foot proved the problems with car-centric cities.

The future of cities is still very much on the drawing board. While initiatives like TEAGUE’s AV “The Hannah” and Airbus’ airtaxi Vahana have hit the ground running with plans, prototypes and test runs, the technologies that enable these kinds of attempts to making our cities more available to its residents are not flawless neither are they void of ethical concerns. However, this should not stop urbanists, engineers, and planners from all walks of life from working together to reimagine the future of our cities. And while motorized vehicles have enabled urban populations to zoom around cities around the world, it is time to reclaim our streets for pedestrians.